White teachers like me should not be policing black pupils’ hair

Last year, a 12-year-old student was forced to take legal action after he was threatened with suspension by his London school for wearing his hair in dreadlocks. More recently, a six-year-old was sent home from school for having a “skin fade”, a common black hairstyle, because his primary school claimed it would “detract from learning”. Now, new research released by De Montfort University Leiceister has revealed that one in six children with afro-textured hair in the UK are having a bad experience with school hair policies.

Having recently taught in a school with a large African-Caribbean student population, this research confirms what I witnessed there. I saw boys with cornrows and afros being told by senior school leaders that they won’t be taken seriously if they didn’t adopt a more “professional” hairstyle. I consoled young black girls placed in internal exclusion rooms for wearing a black protective cloth over their recently styled braids. Black students being sent home for adding blond or red streaks to their hair, while white students who did the same went unreprimanded, shows how racialised school uniform policies can be.

Yet the policing of black students’ appearance is just one symptom of the devastating injustices that black students experience in our school system today. Black pupils are more than two times as likely to be placed in a lower maths set as a result of unconscious bias against their perceived abilities. An African-Caribbean male student with special needs who receives free school meals is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white female counterpart. And despite research showing that having just one black teacher in school means a black student is 13% more likely to go to university, black teachers are still massively under-represented at all levels of our school system.

BAME teachers make up less than 10% of the teaching profession as a whole and just 8% of roles at a senior level, despite BAME students comprising more than a quarter of the UK’s state school population. Ofsted, the schools watchdog, has also recently been criticised for having an all-white senior management team. Tellingly, only 3% of the largest academy trusts are led by non-white leaders, despite these schools being infamous for particularly harsh uniform policies that disproportionately affect black students.

There is something particularly uncomfortable about white educators enforcing strict behavioural policies on black students, with all of the colonial overtones this evokes. As a white teacher, I have tried to educate myself on the history and politics of afro hair in order to more deeply understand how white standards of appearance perpetuate the racist stereotypes that affect my students on a daily basis. As well as trying to advocate on my students’ behalf when they have faced sanctions for their hair, I also have attempted to support them to communicate their experiences for themselves.

But one thing that my black students really need is laws and protections which enshrine their right to study free from discrimination. Earlier this year, New York City issued new human rights regulations which mean that schools or employers who discriminate against African Americans based on the “racist stereotype that black hairstyles are unprofessional” can face a fine of up to $250,000. Given that 95% of adults surveyed in De Montfort’s research last week have expressed that they would like to see the introduction of hair protection laws, it is time that UK policymakers adopted something similar. In the meantime, white teachers have a responsibility to recognise that we must do more to show active, tangible support for our students and their families, no matter how challenging this may be professionally.